Cloud Atlas – Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski – 2012

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Cloud Atlas is not the best film of the year, but I believe it should win Oscars for Makeup, Editing, and Adapted Screenplay. It’s a fabulous feat, weaving six stories together, which are basically unrelated in narrative.  Yes there are connections, like the seaman’s manual or the Cloud Atlas Sextet, but the stories are much more thematically connected. The cuts between one story and the next are carefully constructed so that the preceding context gives relevance and resonance to the next.

As moral dilemmas ebb and flow, the filmmakers cut to or away from these stories to create suspense and drama. And yet, as in almost any narrative with separate threads like this there is no great convergence of the storylines. Near the end of the film you sense each tale coming to a close, but they subtly inform one another, both through this feat of story editing and also through the makeup work and the re-using of actors.

The way the actors play these characters might be that they are reincarnations of one another, but I don’t really feel the film is specific about it. However the shared actors do beg comparison between the different characters that they play and how, over time, these characters develop or do not develop.

The crew of beasts portrayed by Hugo Weaving in this film is uniformly cruel and nasty, while Halle Berry’s characters are angels providing relief and security. Tom Hanks, being the most interesting of all plays a series of villains and then ultimately a character redeemed. In this fashion, Cloud Atlas is one of the most engaging films I have seen in a long time. I feel that because of the demanding nature of the movie, many mainstream filmgoers will be turned off. The filmmakers are demonstrating the malleability of narrative. It’s not unlike the climax of Inception where Nolan cuts between scenes inside of scenes in the dream levels. By telling six stories in Cloud Atlas, you can build that emotion and tension six times over.

Here’s the bad. It’s a three-hour film and you have six stories. That’s about thirty minutes per story. So Joe and Jane filmgoer are used to two hours with a set of characters. Here you get about thirty minutes apiece. It is a bit hard to get invested, but the filmmakers are using archetypes in each tale, so really, it’s shorthand. “Catch up”, they say, “you know these characters.”

The Ship

A doctor is trying to poison the man who is helping a black stowaway. This doctor is the character in the film that stuck with me the most, a truly reprehensible man who poisons while pretending to do good works. He pretends to heal, but is just another greedy man who as he puts it at the end, “ wants your gold and now I’m going to take it!” When we meet this doctor he is on a gravel beach digging for teeth left in the rocks by cannibals who used to live there. He explains how much he can sell the teeth for. Even here this man is digging through the earth for money. Greed informs his character. The use of a cannibal feeding ground here is echoed later When Soon Mi 451 learns the fate of her ascended colleagues.

This segment is cool and the friendship of man and stowaway is well done. I love the scene where the stowaway puts the sail up! Good adventure stuff!  The no slavery stuff at the end of the sequence looks a bit like a BBC drama and I laughed at its tone but hey, other than that I think that this was my favorite story?

The Composer

This one has such a great central performance by Ben Whishaw. It is a beautiful, sad little story about a man who writes a masterpiece while under the tutelage of a master. Said master wants credit for the music. The Man is always trying to either take the Artist’s Art or take credit for it. Drama ensues.

Not my favorite of the tales, but the music is incredible. Robert Frobisher finds Ewing’s novel from sea and finds a kind of inspiration in it, but this and other connections in the stories are not labored over. This piece has a beautiful and tragic ending, but I wasn’t really sad, because, in each tale some piece of art survives the artist and binds the world. Here it is the Cloud Atlas Sextet.

The Swanekke Files

Halle Berry shines in this segment that is 70’s cop show territory. She’s an investigative journalist who ends up with information about an energy company designing their nuclear plant to fail and kill people so that the future of energy is secure. Anyway, Keith David is a hardass tough-guy in this sequence and this character alone make this segment great. Also, Halle Berry is very relatable and humanistic in this performance as Luisa Rey.

Tom Hanks’ character in this sequence is I think one of the keys to understanding the larger theme of the film. He is a scientist who is aware of the plan to kill people in a safety hazard. He ruminates about how he could be killed for helping her, but how a lot of people could be killed if he didn’t. This moment in his (re-incarnations?) is dynamic and he steps for the first time in the film from the dark into the light. I like this segment maybe third best overall.

The Revolt of the Aged

This segment is actually a funny comedy and played for laughs all the way through. It’s a good thing too. Much of the film is pretty glum and this bit makes the other stuff go down a little smoother. Timothy Cavendish is in bad to the wrong guy. (I guess Hanks soul isn’t in the clear yet, cause here the throws a book critic off a building!)

His ghoulish brother, (an unrecognizable Hugh Grant), commits Cavendish to a hellish home for the elderly. Cavendish and his peers plan and execute a daring escape. At some point Cavendish finds a manuscript titled Half Lives by Luisa Rey. The story is sweet and funny and sure to please any older filmgoers. We learn in the next segment that there was even a film eventually made about the Cavendish escape.

Neo-Seoul

Sonmi 451 is an ex service fabricant who has been rescued and freed from her existence of servitude. It is revealed to her that fabricants that ascend to the world of consumers after a year of service are actually killed and processed and ultimately to be fed to functioning fabricants. Sonmi 451 represents a revolutionary voice, the voice of the one who made it out of servitude to prove that whether you are natural born or not that all are flesh and deserve the rights of individuals. This segment has amazing visuals and some of the most thrilling moments of the film.

Here the film becomes a full on action sci-fi film such as Logans Run and the laser battles are quite evocative of Star Wars. Only these shoot outs have many more shots fired and many more deaths. Every Anime fan on the planet with both feel like they’ve seen this stuff before, and also be thrilled to see it created so lovingly on the screen. I only wish I had more emotional tie to Soonmi 451. I should have been tearful at her martyrdom but my heartbeat only quickened a bit.

21 Winters After The Fall

The final segment is told in a post apocalyptic valley where Tom Hanks lets his brother and nephew be slain in an act of cowardice.  The barbarous Kona roam the countryside, killing villagers. Hanks and Berry shine in this segment that is mostly just the two of them. It is here that we sum up the themes of faith and redemption.

Here Meryonym reveals to Zachry that Sonmi 451 was not a goddess but a woman, flesh and blood and proves it to him. But in shaking his faith, she has re-enforced his belief in humanity. His hands are not even clean at the end of the tale, he all but kills the Kona in his sleep. But why fight fair if you cannot win a fair fight? This segment is powerful but can be a bit dry in the middle.

I want to re-iterate that the filmmakers are transcending narrative convention here and I forsee this film to be integral to the storytellers of the future. The way the film creates comparisons for unrelated contexts is exemplary. What does each cut mean? The answers are likely to change as we age. From campfire tales to Cloud Atlas, the passing of history from one generation to next becomes more sophisticated with every telling.

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